25 October 2008

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - LA BOHÈME (N. Amsellem, M. Haddock, F. Capitanucci, G. Jarman; TELARC)

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) – La Bohème: N. Amsellem (Mimì), M. Haddock (Rodolfo), F. Capitanucci (Marcello), G. Jarman (Musetta), D. Sedov (Colline), C. Schaldenbrand (Schaunard), K. Glavin (Benoit/Alcindoro), B. Howard (Parpignol); Gwinnett Young Singers, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Robert Spano [recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center during September 2007; TELARC 80697]

Another recording of La Bohème. Groan. Yes to the former, but in this case not too much of the latter. It is easy to wish that the efforts that went into the recording and release of this Bohème, taken from concert performances given in Atlanta in September 2007, had been applied to another score, one more in need of a competitive recording in digital sound (Manon Lescaut seems an obvious candidate). It is not easy, however, to assemble a credible, competitive Bohème, and that is what Robert Spano and TELARC have achieved.

In many respects, this Bohème, recorded under similar conditions, displays in abundance precisely what the performance on DGG with the starrier pairing of Netrebko and Villazón lacks: a pervasive sense of young lovers in love, of desperate but not devastating poverty, of the gaiety of even troubled existence in the company of friends. In short, this performance is alive, and not merely because there are more audible signs of an audience (including welcome laughter) and efforts at simple staging effects than in the DGG recording. Bohème is not an inexorable progress to tragedy in the manner of a Gluck opera. The ultimate power of Bohème’s pathos is in the speed at which Mimì’s condition deteriorates from her entrance in the final act: we have known since her first appearance in Act One that she is very ill, but we have no reason to suspect that she will not recover. Her new love for Rodolfo demands that she recover. Rodolfo knows in those final moments of the fourth act that she is doomed but is nonetheless stunned when the realization that Mimì has died overtakes him. In this response beats the heart of Bohème and the reason that even hardened opera aficionados listen, even if in secret: there is always that impossible suspension of knowledge and reality and that hope that this is the performance when the love of two charmingly struggling young Bohemians will conquer death. There is in Spano’s performance a disarmingly naïve clinging to hope that both bolsters the inner acts of the opera and underlines the tragedy of Mimì’s death all the more effectively. In this performance, Bohème emerges as what it emphatically is: a beautifully romantic tale with a sudden, annihilating tragic ending. Villazón understood this in the DGG performance but was singing into a veritable void. Spano and all his cast fully comprehend the nature of the score and collectively touch the heart endearingly, defying the fact that this may be the thousandth time one has heard the opera.

Norah Amsellem, veteran of the first Metropolitan Opera performance I attended (a 1997 Carmen, in which she sang Micaëla), proves a capable, thoroughly charming, and ultimately very moving Mimì. Gifted by nature with a voice less opulent than Netrebko’s (to restrict comparison merely with her most recent recorded rival) Amsellem uses her warm timbre, clear diction, and natural sense of portamento to craft a Mimì who is both delicate and passionate. The flood of tone at the climax of her aria, as Mimì laments the fact that the flowers she embroiders lack the fragrances of the real blossoms after which they are modeled, raises the temperature in the frigid garret. It is not difficult to comprehend why a virile young poet is so immediately taken with a woman whose simplest thoughts are inherently poetic when her music is sung with such keen placement of the tone. Thereafter, she brings the perfect combination of shy slyness and wide-eyed amazement to the love duet, given a performance here that is both sensual and intimate. Amsellem makes beautiful contributions to the second act fracas, making touching things of her comments to Rodolfo about her observations that Marcello and Musetta remain madly in love with one another and her pity for them. The third act, a cruel test for any Mimì, brings occasional lapses in firmness, evident mainly in a noticeable but scarcely bothersome loosening of the vibrato at the top of the range in moments of stress, but Amsellem’s resources of wit, feeling, and involvement never fail her. In the final act, Amsellem is equally poignant in Mimì’s fierce battle to cling to life and in her final surrender. When this Mimì dies, one senses that a light has been extinguished, musically and emotionally: one almost imagines all the flowers in Paris, real and embroidered, withering in sympathy. Amsellem’s voice may not withstand detailed comparisons with the greatest Mimìs of the past, but her performance surpasses those of many more famous sopranos and gets at the heart of Puccini’s sweetly assured seamstress.

Marcus Haddock, whose impressive MET début as Gounod’s Faust I witnessed, offers a compelling performance and is very much a member of a tight ensemble rather than a leading tenor going through the paces of a leading tenor role. Haddock shares Amsellem’s clear diction and gratifyingly forward placement of tone. Unlike Villazón on DGG (who utilized a downward transposition), Haddock sings ‘Che gelida manina’ in the autograph key and produces a firm top C mostly free from strain. Haddock’s Rodolfo is in love with poetry and with the very notion of being in love, but Mimì translates his poetic visions into glorious reality. As noted, Haddock combines with Amsellem for an uncommonly enjoyable performance of the love duet that ends the first act. Haddock brings genuine feeling to his contributions to the second act, in which Rodolfo is too often lost in the crowd. Aided by Spano, Haddock gives due emphasis to the line in which Rodolfo introduces Mimì to his friends and says that, though he is a poet, she is poetry. When sung with sincerity and appropriately honeyed tone, is there any more touching sentiment in opera? The third act also brings the greatest trials for Rodolfo, vocally and dramatically, and the heroic undertones of Haddock’s voice serve him well. Variously jealous and petulant, Haddock’s Rodolfo is nonetheless as quick to forgiveness as he is to anger. The sense of relief in Rodolfo’s tone when he and Mimì resolve to remain together through the winter is touchingly honest. Haddock fully explores the dramatic turns of the final act without resorting to overwrought histrionics. Rather than the cries of a wounded artist, Haddock’s final voicings of Mimì’s name are the exasperated words of a young lover, a frightened and shattered Orpheus calling to his disappearing Eurydice. Haddock lacks an easily-identifiable, distinctive timbre, but this is a distinctive, distinguished, completely idiomatic Rodolfo.

Spano and his Atlanta forces surrounded Amsellem and Haddock with a team of expert Bohemians. Georgia Jarman proves a magnificent, nearly revelatory, Musetta, singing with poise, charm, pointed but attractive tone, and diction that only occasionally strays from the high standard set by Amsellem and Haddock. Jarman begins her famous waltz insouciantly, tossing off her purposefully deceptive gaiety, and delivering climactic top notes with pinging precision. Taken as a whole, the waltz ensemble receives from all involved one of its finest performances on records. Fabio Capitanucci, a singer previously unknown to me, is a Marcello who responds with eloquence to Rodolfo, Mimì, and Musetta. A measure of nostalgia is perhaps missing from Marcello’s last-act duet with Rodolfo, but Capitanucci sings throughout with nuance and well-placed tone. It is, of course, a true pleasure to hear a native Italian in the role. Bass Denis Sedov is one of the better Collines to be encountered in recent years: while pointing the text with cleverness, Sedov’s tone is also capable of unfurling magnificently in a manner befitting a great ‘bear’ of a character. Beginning with Monteverdi’s Seneca, philosophers seem to require bass voices that can roll voluptuously into the depths without becoming lugubrious. Kevin Glavin revels in his double assignment as Benoit and Alcindoro, articulating both characters without caricature or the unnecessary bluster with which many singers of these roles seek to disguise vocal shortcomings. Completing the team of principals is Christopher Schaldenbrand, whose performance as Schaunard confirms his reputation as one of American’s finest young baritones. This is a singer who can reach the lowest notes of his role to, along with Colline, anchor ensembles and can also encompass the role’s highest notes without shouting or forcing. It is surely ironic that Schaunard, the musician of the group, so seldom receives a truly musical performance. Schaldenbrand supplies musicality in abundance, however, and delivers his retelling of the melodrama involving the English Milord, the parrot, and the poisoned parsley with an increasingly-annoyed wit that is genuinely funny. In this, Schaldenbrand brings to mind the wonderful John Reardon, but Schaldenbrand’s voice is more beautiful and his theatrical instincts show greater savvy.

It is well known that Robert Spano has wrought wonders with the Symphony during his tenure in Atlanta. To state that the Atlanta Symphony here plays unobtrusively may seem unkind, but it is intended as a tribute to the complete security of the playing. There is none of the symphonic preening that one often hears from great orchestras in this score. The Symphony, guided by Spano, simply play the score with grace, color, and perfect timing, never forgetting that they are accompanying—rather than competing with—a team of singers who are enacting a very human drama. Director Norman Mackenzie also deserves a word of praise for the excellent balance among the child and adult choristers. Above all, though, it is Spano who brings this performance together, conducting with mastery that never draws attention to itself but shapes a sequence of four brief acts that eloquently move from first love to unmitigated celebration and then from resignation and suspicion to bitter reunion and extraordinary sadness. It is disheartening to note how many world-famous conductors with casts of world-famous singers fail to make this journey in the space of La Bohème’s two hours. Spano and his cast achieve a performance that, if not displacing the classic recordings with Albanese and Gigli, de los Angeles and Björling, both entertains and inspires. Taken on its own merits, it is a performance to cherish, and moreover one that proves that casts of brand-name singers often do not create the same magic provided by people who simply care about the story they are telling.